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56 2 • Battle on the Homefront: World War II and Patriotic Racism To decide which is the “greatest generation” involves a double choice. One is the choice of a particular time period. The other is the choice of who will represent that time period, that generation. Neither is decided arbitrarily, but rather on the basis of one’s political philosophy. —Howard Zinn, “The Greatest Generation?” In The War Complex: World War II in Our Time, cultural critic Marianna Torgovnick posits that the way we remember war intensifies cultural patterns of memory-­ work, emphasizing some events while distorting or omitting others even when the elided events are well-­ known to the public. Torgovnick ­ refers to these ellipses as history “hiding in plain sight”; they are events that are documented but never register in public awareness because they contradict established patterns of cultural memory.1 For World War II, cultural memory in the United States focuses on specific tropes, including D-­Day, the fight against totalitarianism , and the Holocaust as a Nazi crime against humanity: “these events and ideas form part of America’s image of itself, frequently cited in public discourse and often memorialized. They place Americans in virtuous, heroic roles—how we like to think of ourselves and present ourselves to the world, even at those times when the United States has been a belligerent and not-­ much-­ loved nation .”2 In contrast to the war in Vietnam or other military conflicts of questionable moral justification, World War II was the “good war”; it is remembered as an effort fought for a clear and just cause, to defeat the dangerous fascism of Nazi Germany and defend the nation against the military aggression of imperial World War II and Patriotic Racism 57 Japan.3 This nationalist nostalgia has only deepened as the generation of World War II survivors reaches the end of their natural lifespan, and those who remember them hasten to pay homage to their wartime sacrifices. Dubbed the “Greatest Generation” by journalist Tom Brokaw, the men and women who lived through World War II have been the subject of best-­ selling nonfiction books, television miniseries like HBO’s Band of Brothers (2001), and award-­ winning movies like Saving Private Ryan (1998). The term “Greatest Generation” has entered into the general lexicon in the United States, along with Brokaw’s sweeping rhetoric about the “men and women whose everyday lives of duty, honor, achievement , and courage gave us the world we have today.”4 World War II has become a­sacred part of our nation’s past. But what was the “good war” for those who were not generally considered Americans, despite their official citizenship? Who qualified as a member of the “Greatest Generation,” and who qualifies even today in narrative accounts of the war? Journalists like Brokaw occasionally acknowledge the experiences of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latina/os, and Native Americans in separate chapters or episodes. In his book The Greatest Generation, Brokaw admits that “They [the Generation] weren’t perfect” and that “They allowed McCarthyism and racism to go unchallenged for far too long.”5 However, such statements ironically recognize the injustice of racism while disallowing racial and ethnic minorities from constituting a part of the “they” of the “Greatest Generation.” They draw upon a rhetoric, long-­ held in the United States, that relegates nonwhite characters to supporting roles that exist solely to teach, reflect, or demonstrate important characteristics of a white protagonist. Toni Morrison famously theorizes this phenomenon as “playing in the dark,” when people of color narratively “ignite critical moments of discovery or change or emphasis in literature not written by them,”6 and Sau-­ ling Cynthia Wong calls it the “psychospiritual plantation system” of narrative.7 Certainly, in the wave of World War II nostalgia that has swept the United States in recent years, a psychospiritual plantation system is at work shaping how we remember the narrative of United States history.8 Thus, even while Brokaw dedicates a section of his book to stories of citizens who suffered racism at home while fighting fascism abroad, he names the section “Shame,” a term that either reflects the shame of the nation (if the nation is defined by its white leaders) or the shame of the actual people featured in the rest of the book—for example, the all-­white cast of men and women in the “Heroes” section. Either way, the experiences of minorities in the war, however respectfully related, are relegated to a small and...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813589886
Related ISBN
9780813589855
MARC Record
OCLC
993033138
Pages
216
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-06
Language
English
Open Access
No
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